Having arrived at Georgia’s Vardzia Cave Complex, I looked up to the caves cut into the side of the mountain and thought, ‘I’m never going to be able to get up there’. My fears were doubled when having been let through the exit barrier to avoid a crush of children waiting to enter, we discovered that the shuttle buses which ferried visitors up a long, steep tarmac road to the starting point, were not running. However, we took it slowly and with a few stops to ‘admire the views’, I made it to the start of the cave complex.
The man-made caves hewn from a sheer rock wall, overlooking the Mtkvari River and close to the Armenian border, were the idea of King Giorgi III as a place where villagers could take shelter in the face of enemy raids. However, it flourished during the reign of the legendary Queen Tamar, who reimagined the complex as a self-sufficient city, rather than a place of temporary shelter. Designed to accommodate up to 50,000 people, there would have been more than 6,000 rooms on 19 levels. These would have served various purposes, including sleeping quarters, chapels and apothecaries and what I thought was sensible, at least 25 wine cellars. Currently around a third of the site is preserved.
Most of the caves were empty and we wandered the various walkways, peeping in at the least busy. The Church of the Dormition, dating back to the 1180s, had an important series of colourful frescoes where the rocks had to be smoothed with lime before being painted. Eventually, we reached the highest level and the flag which we’d seen flying from below.
There is a huge labyrinth of tunnels, many of them very long, and we were given the option of returning to the bottom via one. But having established the ceiling would be low, I decided to return back via the steps and steep hill.
This was a fascinating complex, but you need plenty of stamina and comfortable shoes as there is a lot of walking up and down on uneven steps and narrow paths.